We live now in a culture of expertise, so completely second nature to us that we don’t give it a second thought. Cutting-edge advances in science and technology—ever sharpening, ever thrusting forward—are now available to anyone with an Internet connection. If our doctor gives us grave news, we naturally get a second and third opinion from specialists. Businesses regularly hire consultants—experts—to help them get the edge over their competitors, and churches have jumped on the bandwagon as well. It’s become one of our shared assumptions, this reach to “find the expert,” and I wonder if it’s part of the reason we do not understand or recognize a true sage. In business circles experts are sometimes even called sages.
They are worlds apart.
A sage differs from an expert the way a lover differs from an engineer. To begin with, expertise quite often has nothing to do with walking with God, may in fact lead us farther from him. For the expertise of the specialist gives us the settled assurance that he has matters under control, and that we will also, as soon as we put our trust in him. That is why we love him. “The reason your church is not growing is because you’re not marketing yourselves properly to your intended customers.” On a human level, that might be true, might produce some results. But wouldn’t it be better to inquire of God why the church is not growing? The psychology of expertise comes indistinguishably close to the psychology of the Tower of Babel. “We have matters under our control now. Expertise has given us power over our destinies.” And we know how God feels about that.
Now of course, there is nothing wrong with expertise—per se. I’d be the first one to find the best heart surgeon in the country should my son need heart surgery. And yet, why is it that we seem to have so few sages in our midst, that most of us have witnessed the sage only in stories like those I’ve recounted? Is it that they don’t exist, or might it be that our near-worship of expertise has pushed the sage to the sidelines? And what are we to make of the passage that tells us, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23 NIV)? Whatever, whenever, wherever we place our hopes and confidence in something other than God, that is sin. Given mankind’s inexplicable reluctance to rely on God, and nearly limitless ability to rely on anything else, can you see how the culture of expertise actually plays right into our godlessness, despite all our protestations to the contrary?
The sage, on the other hand, communes with God—an existence entirely different from and utterly superior to the life of the expert. Whatever counsel he offers, he draws you to God, not to self-reliance. Oh, yes, the sage has wisdom, gleaned from years of experience, and that wisdom is one of his great offerings. But he has learned not to lean upon his wisdom, knowing that often God is asking things of us that seem counterintuitive, and thus his wisdom (and expertise) are fully submitted to his God. Humility might be one of the great dividing lines between the expert and the sage, for the sage doesn’t think he is one. “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12 NIV). Thus we might not know we have a sage at the table, for he will remain silent while the “experts” prattle on and on.
The experts impress. The sage draws us to God. He offers a gift of presence, the richness of a soul that has lived long with God.